Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Three Studies, Many Insights About Public Radio’s Audience

Three studies published in 2005 provide some interesting insights into how listeners use public radio.

Public Radio Today 2005 from Arbitron, is a snapshot of public radio usage in Spring 2004. It also includes expanded demographic information (education, income) for various public radio formats.

The Public Radio Format Study from the Station Resource Group (SRG), charts the audience performance of public radio’s formats between Spring 1999 and Fall 2004.

Some Public Radio Programming And Listening Trends from Audience Research Analysis (ARA), analyzes listening patterns to programs, formats, and the role of national and local programming in public radio’s audience growth between Spring 2001 and Spring 2005.

The first two studies were produced prior to the release of the Spring 2005 audience estimates. They do not include any analysis of the recent dip in public radio’s audience. ARA’s reports provide some early insights on the subject. It certainly raises some important questions.

The studies are rich with information. We will touch on just a few highlights here and add some thoughts on what they mean. We highly recommend that you read each report to gain the full value of their findings.

Public Radio Today 2005 (PDF)
(Editor's Note: Arbitron's website was down when this piece was first published. Check back later to access Public Radio Today 2005)

Arbitron reports that 11.0% of the US population (12 and older) listens to public radio in an average week. That’s 27-million people in public radio’s weekly (Cume) audience.*

Nearly 10% of all 25-34 year olds in the US are in public radio’s weekly audience. This is somewhat of a myth-buster given the conventional wisdom that public radio is failing to reach younger listeners.

Each listener spends an average of 8 hours per week listening to public radio. The 25-34 year olds spend under 7 hours per week with public radio. So while public radio is attracting younger listeners, they are not finding as much to listen to when they tune in.

The Public Radio Format Study (PDF)

The SRG reports that most of the growth in public radio’s Average Quarter-Hour (AQH) audience came from stations carrying news programming. The fastest growing audiences were at All News stations.

The average time spent listening (TSL) across stations was very similar. The All Classical stations had the highest TSL at 6 hours and 58 minutes per week. But that was not much higher than to the All News stations, which had an average TSL of 6 hours and 49 minutes per week. All Jazz stations had a TSL of 6 hours, 9 minutes. These are similar to the numbers reported by Arbitron in Public Radio Today 2005.

It looks like another myth is busted. Listeners do not spend more time with public radio’s music stations than they do with public radio’s news stations.

Some Public Radio Programming And Listening Trends (PDF)


The ARA report shows a significant shift in listening patterns from local to network programming. Network programming now accounts for 62% of all listening to public radio, up from 54% in Spring 2001.

Listening to local classical programming is in sharp decline. Much of that probably has to do with stations dropping classical in favor of news. Listening to local news was trending up slightly until Spring 2005. But local news accounts for just five percent of all listening to public radio. Other metrics show it remains a weak draw for audiences. The fortunes of local news appear to be tied to the success of network news.

Most important, more of public radio’s listening is coming from fewer and fewer network programs. With all of the discussion about starting local programming initiatives, ARA points out that, in the past five years, public radio’s networks delivered just one new program that is a powerful audience draw – Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.

One new, powerful national program every five years is not enough given public radio’s increased reliance on network programs.


* The 27 million listener number was derived by applying Arbitron's 11.0% weekly listener figure from Public Radio Today 2005 t0 Arbitron's official estimate of the the 12+ population in for the study, which was 245,023,500 (source: Arbitron Nationwide Reference Guide, Spring 2004).
245,023,500 * .110 = 26,952,585

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